This is my first post. I’m new to this but I have been thinking about writing reviews for quite some time now. Exploring, reading, writing, analysing, etc. plays has always been an integral part of my life. It has previously been a time when I was most content (excluding reading novels/poetry all day long with a cup of tea by my side). Writing has also always been important to me. I always knew that I wanted to write, but for me, the problem was what do I write? I was faced with this dilemma when the editor of my local newspaper suggested that I start blogging or doing something that would get my work out there for any future employers. It wasn’t until this year, when I started university, studying an English course that is so diverse, that I realised critically discussing and forming my own opinions about books, plays, productions, etc. is what I’ve always been good at and what I’ve always enjoyed. I follow a philosophy that people should always do things that make them happy. So why shouldn’t this apply to what I write about?
What better way to start this new process, than to write about one of my favourite plays. Twelfth night is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is about unrequited love, both hilarious and heart-breaking. Twins are separated in a shipwreck at the start of the play. Viola (the female twin, dresses up as a man called Cesario) falls in love with Orsino, who is pining for Olivia. Olivia is falling in love with Viola but is worshipped by Malvolio/a. Sir Toby encourages Sir Andrew to pursue Olivia for her hand in marriage. If this wasn’t complicated enough, Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, enters (We need to remember that he is the spitting image of Viola) and everything falls to pieces. Sir Andrew challenges Sebastian to a duel (thinking it was Cesario/Viola), Olivia marries Sebastian (again thinking it was Cesario/Viola). And we haven’t even covered subplots like Sir Toby, Maria and Sir Andrews tricks on Malvolio/a, encouraging him/her to declare his love to Olivia.
Photo by Marc Brenner via Twelfth Night Production Images.
The casting of this particular production was superb, with the highlight of Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. She is such an instinctive actress, that the balance between comedy and reflective melancholy was brilliantly poignant. I think in making this gender swap, director Simon Godwin refocuses the attention on an issue that is so profoundly relevant and crucial to today’s society. Such as the contemporary issues surrounding gender roles and sexuality, and of accepting and understanding one’s true identity, even if it is out of the norm. Greig was able to make this journey accessible to every audience member by adapting mannerisms that are universally recognisable. Every gesture and movement, her costume of pristine black, her immaculately straight fringe and her obsessiveness for order and neatness, for example when she adjusted the topiary hedges by a centimetre in order for them to line up, brought to life this image of a repressed, closeted woman. Someone who is lonely and struggling to understand herself. To compensate for this she focuses all her attention on other things, something that Greig encapsulates to the minutest detail in her performance.
As impressive as this was, what was truly exceptional was Greig’s acting ability to develop and sustain the character arc. She manages to portray three different personae within one woman. It is truly exceptional to watch as the confined, repressed Malvolia changes after receiving the letter, supposedly from her mistress. Greig performance becomes more erratic and louder, almost as if Malvolia’s character is coming alive for the first time. The staging and use of the water fountain spurting water all over encapsulates this imagery of rebirth. Then, Greig gives another entirely different persona. One of fragility, vulnerability, that evokes true and for me never felt before empathy for Malvolia. The costume department was spot on in their portrayal of her; we see her as an outcast, her physical appearance with mud all over her, hair and make-up visibly dishevelled heightens our sympathy towards her. If this wasn’t enough, Greig took this to another level with her acting and gestures; we saw her character shaking and shrinking back into this shell of a woman. A poignant reminder of the cruelty to those who are deemed as outside of the norms. This melancholic undertone is never more poignant than Greig’s final line ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you’. Leaving me feel some sympathetic for Malvolia then I ever have before.
The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian had an entirely new dynamic. Although the implicit homosexual love on Antonio’s side was given more distinction, I felt that it was more one-sided and unrequited. Sebastian’s body language and refusal of Antonio going with him on his search for his sister, felt slightly bitter, that the emphasis was on Sebastian’s love and concern for his sister and not Antonio. I felt that there was more anger towards Antonio for failing to save Viola from the shipwreck.
I think that one of the most important stage directions is at the end when Orsino kisses Sebastian thinking that it was his love Viola and calls her ‘boy’. It suggests that although he has been struggling throughout with the idea of falling for a man by the end he no longer cares. He has taken away all gender binaries and released that he has fallen in love with a person. This is such a crucial moment, one that we should learn from, especially in this evolving world.
Another noteworthy moment was the development of Sir Andrew’s character, played by Daniel Rigby. Everything about him, his acting, costume, body language, line delivery was spot on and for once he had actually presence and personality that instead of being an unnecessary add-on, he became an integral part to the plot and the understanding of the comedic and melancholic relationship woven into the fabric of the play.
Finally, the set design is original and inventive. The pyramidal design begins as the ship which splits in the middle, acting as a visible representation of a shipwreck. This, the lighting and sound all coincided to create one massive atmosphere but intense moment shared by the actors and audience. Furthermore, the way this design sections off into four quarters and the use of the rotational stage allowed for the movement across Illyria, between houses to flow naturally. This was something that I was initially concerned about – how to capture the passing of time and the movement over a large country. But the National Theatre outstandingly avoided any such difficulties.
I really do have nothing negative to say about this production. Simon Godwin’s vision is spectacular. Can I see it again?